For the sake of Indian democracy, Modi should keep Army out of politics

Ashok Swain
Ashok SwainMay 29, 2017 | 11:32

For the sake of Indian democracy, Modi should keep Army out of politics

India’s military has always been carefully kept out of politics for the past seven decades. An apolitical, non-partisan military has been the hallmark of Indian democracy and a trait of Indian military professionalism.

However, in recent years under the Narendra Modi government, there is a serious apprehension that the military is being drawn into the murky waters of the country’s politics.


Modi has not only appointed a highly controversial retired Army Chief in his Council of Ministers, he has also humiliated two outstanding Army officers by superseding them to appoint the present Army Chief, General Bipin Rawat. His One Rank, One Pension policy has also divided the country’s military community.

Regular cross-border operations have been branded by the Modi government as "surgical strikes" to use for electoral gains. Unlike the post-Kargil operation in 1999, this time the Army did not oppose its use by the party in power for political purposes.

The Army together with the government is even advertising ordinary cross-border firing as military success vis-a-vis Pakistan.

Modi’s handpicked Army Chief has been giving highly provocative statements on the Kashmir issue, which undermines the Army’s credibility on the ground but suits the ruling party’s hardline approach and caters to its nationalist-majoritarian discourse.

In February this year, the Army Chief openly issued a threat that protesters in Kashmir against Army operations during encounters would be treated as over-ground workers of militants, inviting condemnation from the opposition parties and appreciation from the ruling regime.

On 28 May, he went a step further and openly wished that protesters, instead of throwing stones should fire weapons, so that the Army can fire back. The Army Chief’s commendation card to Major Nitin Leetul Gogoi, who got a Kashmiri man tied to the bonnet of his jeep to deter protesters, also follows the same pattern of legitimising the government’s high-handed policy in Kashmir and inviting censure from the opposition.


What the Army Chief has started doing in recent months, many retired generals have been doing nearly two years in front of millions of TV viewers or print media every day and night.

The ruling party is unabashedly using the military in actively building a warmongering media frenzy and promoting the fervour of fanatical devotion to the country for its own gains. Photo: PTI

These hawkish generals are unfortunately being used as pawns in the ruling party’s "patriotic" anti-Pakistan, anti-Kashmiri politics and raising doubt over the long-perceived notion of the military as a political neutral institution of the country.

As if that was not enough, several of these high-profile retired generals are also employed by RSS-funded so-called research institutions, and are even attending RSS-organised public gatherings propagating Hindutva politics.

While serving and retired generals are consistently giving politically partisan statements supporting the government’s security policy, in recent years it has almost become a taboo to ask apposite questions to the armed forces even on vital matters of national interest.

Even in a country like Pakistan, where the military is the most powerful institution of the land, there is no such blanket branding of its Army critics as anti-nationals.


This ultra-nationalistic position in India by the ruling party raises a serious question mark over the state of Indian democracy.

When the military becomes perceived as politically partisan, it erodes its standing in the eyes of the common populace of the country and the sacred core of civil-military relations in a democracy crumbles.

In a democracy, the military is subservient to democratic institutions both in command and in discharging duties. However, political decisions about the use of the military and its operations need to be guided by wider strategic value and greater national interest and not to be motivated by a desire to promote partisan politics. Appointment and promotion of generals needs to adhere to a professional, not political process.

If the serving and retired generals continue to take partisan positions on public platforms and regularly expose partisan loyalties, Indian voters might reasonably assume that the opposition parties and leaders would fail to enjoy the support and confidence of the armed forces if elected to office.

In a democracy, the Opposition might be seen as not capable of pursuing a national security policy effectively if the generals openly support the ruling party. Such a situation is not good for democracy, not good for the military and not good for the country itself.

There is no doubt, it is important for India’s professional military to actively maintain its apolitical character. However, the political leadership of the country carries the responsibility of protecting the non-partisan image of military officers and military institutions.

Instead of abstaining from partisan remarks to the military gathering, Narendra Modi’s defence minister has even openly bragged of RSS teachings behind the success of the Army’s cross-border operation.

Using serving and retired generals to openly support and promote politically controversial military operations can be viewed by the public as the loyalty of the armed forces to the ruling party rather than to the country or its Constitution.

But, that has not stopped the RSS and BJP from openly engaging retired generals to promote their highly divisive Hindutva agenda. The ruling party is unabashedly using the military in actively building a warmongering media frenzy and promoting the fervour of fanatical devotion to the country for its own political opportunism.

It is important how Indian military conducts itself in the current turbulent time, which will shape the nature and character of India’s democracy. No country should take its democracy for granted. It is critical, particularly for a developing country like India, to keep the military strictly professional and out of its politics. The military as an institution should be only designed to protect the territorial integrity of a state, and not be allowed to intrude into democratic institutions.

Where ever the military plays an active role in politics, it limits popular sovereignty, the core character of democracy.

Thus, Modi’s political opportunism can potentially extend the tutelage of armed forces and undermine the sovereignty of India’s citizens.

In the short run, Modi and BJP might be electorally successful by actively using the armed forces to promote their political agenda. But this trend poses a serious survival crisis for India’s risky democratic fabric.

Last updated: May 30, 2017 | 20:33
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